What Planners Can Learn From Climate Change Scientists

Climate Change Science Jargon

The above table was taken from an interesting journal article from Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol titled “Communicating the Science of Climate Change” that tries to persuade climate change scientists to improve their communication skills to better present their findings to the public.

Scientists use too much jargon. And since most people (the public) are not familiar with that jargon, the underlying message tends to get lost. This communication gap has proven troublesome in the ongoing issue of climate change, specifically with the percentage of people who doubt arguments that climate change is occurring.

Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol hit the nail on the head in their article:

Americans are also unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus. At least 97% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is occurring and that it is primarily human-induced. But that strong consensus is largely unrecognized by the public. Only 39% believe that most scientists think global warming is occurring, and 40% believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether it’s occurring. Even among those in the most engaged categories of figure 1, only 44% of the alarmed and 18% of the concerned say there is scientific agreement that the world is warming. Among the disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive, less than 5% believe there is such agreement.

Much of the underlying science in climate change research is almost always deemed sound in many of the recent efforts to debunk scientific findings. The biggest issue is getting the public to understand what scientists have been arguing for years. And that starts with simplifying words, phrases and concepts so the public can follow along and understand too. Better word choice is key (see the meaning gap between: uncertainty, error, error, bias, and anomaly).

Although part of the problem too is the cliquish scientist environment that seems hesitant to “dumb it down” for the public. See the public spreadsheet for examples of this sometimes snobby attitude. This attitude definitely does not help.

To be fair, certain scientists tend to not engage regularly with the public, so it is easy for them to get trapped in their own jargon. However, they should definitely make the effort to do so.


As planners already know, communicating with the public allows planners to better do their job by making sure everyone is on the same page. Look through an average planning document like a General Plan. They were meant to be read by the public. The result is ultimately less confusion and generally more support for future efforts, thus fewer doubts about the underlying science and theory, and more action.

For an example of what happens when everyone is on the same page: see The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Very simple message that everyone understood.

UPDATE: Added two new links.

[image via Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol]